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I Don’t Want To Belong To Any Club That Will Accept People Like Me As A Member – Part Thirty Six


The Society of Brothers Club

The Society of Brothers Club, not to be confused with the religious grouping that later became the Bruderhof Group, had a very short lifespan, lasting from 1711 until 1713. It was formed by Henry St John II in the turbulent political atmosphere leading up to the death of Queen Anne and the Hanoverian ascendency as an exclusively Tory dining club. Although it was relatively short-lived and not particularly successful, we know a lot about it because the satirist, Jonathan Swift, was a member. Indeed Swift had a major hand in compiling the rules of the Society.

They met every Thursday – there had been a forerunner of the club called the Saturday Club which, unsurprisingly, met on Saturdays – and their objective, according to Swift, was “to advance conversation and friendship, and to reward learning without interest or recommendation”. As for membership, Swift declared “we take in none but men of wit, or men of interest; and if we go on as we began, no other Club in this town will be worth talking of”. Having a relative as a member was no guarantee that you would get in. The Duke of Beaufort proposed his brother-in-law, the Earl of Danby, as a member but the proposal was successfully opposed by Swift because “Danby is not above twenty, and we will have no more boys”.

In the early days there were no more than around 20 members – Swift records “we are now, in all, nine lords and ten commoners…and we want but two to make up our number”. The Society met at the Thatched House Tavern on St James’ Street, a choice that was perhaps geographically convenient but put a strain on the Club’s coffers. The Duke of Ormond was in the chair one week and the meal, described as “four dishes and four without a dessert” cost an astonishing £20. That was without wine which was usually provided by the Society’s President.

There was soon dissension in the ranks over costs. The Treasurer, reported Swift, was in a rage over costs and soon afterwards “our Society does not meet now as usual”.  In fact, the club met once a fortnight and held a committee meeting every other week to determine upon some charitable good cause to support. Often the beneficiaries of the Society’s largesse were impoverished writers and artists. One subscription was launched for a poet who had lampooned the Duke of Marlborough, all the members donating two guineas each, other than Swift, Arbuthnot and Friend who gave just one each.

Still dissatisfied with the expense of the Thatched House the Club had a bit of an itinerant existence. Arbuthnot, as president, hosted a dinner in “Ozinda’s Coffee-house, just by St James’s. We were never merrier or better company, and did not part till after eleven”. Then fifteen members dined under a canopy at Parson’s Green leading Swift to remark, “I never saw anything so fine and romantic”. Eventually, the Club settled for the Star and Garter in Pall Mall, although costs still were complained of.

According to Swift’s Journal to Stella, meetings were convivial where there was “much drinking, little thinking” – sounds my kind of club – and often the business which they had assembled to consider was put off to a more convenient time. Members would, however, entertain each other with their latest exploits or readings of their latest masterpiece. Swift’s The Fable of Midas “passed wonderfully at our Society tonight”.

By now, though, Swift and Arbuthnot had devised Martinus Scriblerus and went off to form the Scriblerus Club and the Brothers’ star waned.


I Don’t Want To Belong To Any Club That Will Accept People Like Me As A Member – Part Twenty Eight


The Scriblerus Club

This club, formed in 1714, was more of a literary collective and was formed of some of the sharpest literary talents of the age including Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift, John Gay, John Arbuthnot and Thomas Parnell. It took its rather curious name from a cod scholar, Martinus Scriblerus, whom the group created to represent the kind of pedantic scholar who was to be the butt of their satire. Swift was given the nickname Martin by the group – a rather lame play on the ornithological derivation of his surname – and the pedant’s first name was given in his honour. Instead of concentrating on humanistic matters Scriblerus would spend his time in the Gradgrindian tasks of checking facts and trivial details.

The club’s aim was to develop a canon of literature that attacked the then trend for excessively literal approaches to academic subjects, ranging from medicine to philosophy. The members’ goal was to produce satirical commentary on the abuse of human learning, on the assumption that ridiculing these prevailing ideas and approaches was the best way of minimising their influence. They met occasionally, usually at Arbuthnot’s house.

The problem was that with such an array of mercurial talents in membership disputes were bound to occur and this sounded the death knell for the club. As Sir Walter Scott commented in his Life of Swift, “the violence of political faction, like a storm that spares the laurel no more than the cedar, dispersed this little band of literary brethren, and prevented the accomplishment of a task for which talents so various, so extended, so brilliant, can never again be united.

Swift tried to play the role of peacemaker. He wrote a fable of Fagot where the ministers of the land are called upon to contribute their various badges of office to make the bundle strong and secure but his diplomatic entreaties fell on stoney ground. In a huff Swift retreated to Berkshire where he stayed in seclusion for some weeks.

Although short-lived as a club, the legacy of Martinus Scriblerus lived on. The Memoirs of Martinus Scriblerus, published  in 1741 in a volume of Pope’s works, although much of it was written by Arbuthnot, tells of his upbringing and education. Such was the energy and enthusiasm that they invested in this project that Pope confided to Swift in a letter that “the top of my own ambition is to contribute to that great work and I shall translate Homer by and by”. You can imagine the fun they had in creating their character.

Pope’s Dunciad Variorum, published in 1729, incorporates Scriblerus’ fastidious notes, penned by Pope. And probably the most famous product of the club was Swift’s own Travels of Lemuel Gulliver, the third book of which concerns the visit to Laputa and which betrays the stamp of Scriblerus. Gay’s Beggar’s Opera grew out of a suggestion made by Swift at the club and Henry Fielding’s The Welsh Opera (1731) was presented as a tribute to the Scriblerians and satirised the government. His pen name was Scriblerus Secundus, naturally.

A short-lived club that had a long-lasting influence on English literature.

What Is The Origin Of (105)?…


Flea in your ear

We deploy this phrase when we dismiss someone with words of sarcastic advice or reproof ringing in their ears. It denotes giving someone a sharp oral rebuke. The phrase first appeared in the written English language as far back as 1426 in John Lydgate’s The Pilgrimage of the Life of the Manhood, manhood denoting the human condition. Lydgate’s work in turn was a translation of a devotional work by the French Cistercian monk, Guillaume de Deguileville.

Flea is a term given to any small, flattened, wingless, bloodsucking insect of the order Siphonaptera. They are parasites and are best known for their prodigious ability to leap. Even today they can be found on even the best groomed of our domestic pets and in medieval times when hygiene and living standards were considerably lower you can imagine that they were frequently encountered in the home. If you were unfortunate enough to have a flea jump into your ear, the experience would doubtless have been unpleasant with the flea wriggling around, trying to jump to freedom and probably giving you a nip or two along the way.

Interestingly, though, Deguilville didn’t use the term to suggest a sense of irritation or discomfort, rather using it to denote the sort of spiritual emotion that is evoked by contemplating great wonders. Indeed, in mediaeval French the phrase “avoir la puce a l’oreille” was used to describe the amorous or sexual desire you felt for someone, a meaning it retained until at least the 17th century when Jean de la Fontaine wrote, “a longing girl/ with thoughts of sweetheart in her head/ in bed all night will sleepless twirl./ A flea is in her ear, ‘tis said”. The agitation caused a lovelorn maiden by thoughts of her beau were considered from a figurative standpoint akin to the frantic and jerky movements of an animal trying to rid itself of an unwelcome visitor from its ears.

And in more modern times the French use their version of the expression to denote having doubts or someone putting suspicions into your head. This sense is broadly repeated in similar expressions found in German, Italian and Greek, the flea perhaps taking the role of an external influence whispering messages of distrust into your ear. The Dutch use a flea in the ear to denote someone who is fidgety or restless, preferring to concentrate on the visible signs of someone or something being attacked by fleas.

Not for the first time is the English-speaking community at odds with our European friends. We have tended to concentrate on the physical discomforts that having a flea in your ear can cause and have used it figuratively through the centuries to equate that physical pain with the mental anguish caused on receipt of a stern telling off. The mathematician and alchemist, John Dee, wrote in a letter in 1586, although not published until 1659 in True Faithful Relation..and Spirits, “at length had such his answer, that he is gone to Rome with a flea in his eare that disquieteth him”. John Arbuthnot wrote in his History of John Bull, published in 1712, “we being stronger than they, sent them away with a Flea in their Ear”. Ryder Haggard in Jess, published in 1887, wrote “I sent him off with a flea in his ear, I can tell you”. No sign of doubt, suspicions or amorous feeling there!